Are you paying for coaching or cheerleading?

It’s not hard to become a trainer. I know, because I shouldn’t have been one.

I started training people in 2009 and had absolutely no business doing it. At that point I had an educational and professional background in Construction Management and an exercise (not training) background in cardio bunny-ing, yoga, step class, shallow knee bends with a barbell and on a leg press machine and an extreme, yet unrequited, dedication to the good-girl/bad-girl machines.

About a year before I started training people, I was introduced to barbell training. I did not do it consistently. I was not serious about it. I still frequented my globo-gym buffet of exercises. A skinny-fat, aimlessly eager girl. (Sounds like a Friday night on Tinder, amiright??) 

Not long after meeting the barbell, I started CrossFit and in less than a year I was “coaching” people. I do not recall learning about the General Adaptation Syndrome and how it pertains to training and I had very limited experience with performing or teaching the barbell movements with an actual barbell, but I was hella decent at instructing a clean with a medicine ball.

So, here I was with a certificate from a weekend course that didn’t even require an exam, instructing people on how to move weights and themselves under varying levels of fatigue, hoping to not give them rhabdo yet also expecting of them to work hard enough to puke.

Since I had such little valid experience, what did I fall-back on while coaching? Emotions. I cheered for people. I wanted them to feel good about what they were doing in the moment. I knew that CrossFit was supposed to be hard, so since I couldn’t provide anything useful for how they were moving, I encouraged them to do whatever the hell they were doing HARDER, FASTER, STRONGER, with MOAR CHALK and MOAR BLOOD, for their families, for kittens, and for Jesus ‘Merica Christ!

And when they were done, I lied to them. I said “Great job!” A year later I opened up a CrossFit gym.

During that time when I co-owned that gym, I went on to get a training certificate from ACE, attended the CrossFit Level 2 and the Catalyst Athletics seminar and then FINALLY read Starting Strength. Later, in 2013, I attended the Starting Strength Seminar and subsequently became a coach, which was a lot more intensive of a process than any other training credential I had been exposed to. You can read about it here. (The linked article describes a “Level II” seminar, which is now the Complete Method seminar during which an attendee can opt-in for the coaching credential.)

It wasn’t until I became a Starting Strength Coach that I fully appreciated what should be expected of a Coach and have consequently built a much more complex and diverse arsenal for teaching than just emotional appeal. 

I do not think my early history as a trainer is unique. Perhaps your trainer started with a different series of letters after their name or had an educational background in an exercise-related field, but when this (see below) is the extent of the deadlift teaching model by the most recognized strength and conditioning trainer certification, CSCS, we got 99 problems…and probably more. 

CSCS Deadlift
It’s no wonder the Deadlift is banned from certain gyms when so few trainers actually know how to teach it.

During these first couple of years as a trainer and gym owner, I was a classic example of the know-it-all of the Dunning-Kruger effect. My poor sister was always getting an earful of the new best functional fitness sermon. I knew everything and I wouldn’t shut-up about it. And thank you “Facebook Memories” for these reminders.

Back then I would hardly question the “why” behind articles or methods or programs, but now I am a skeptic and whether you are a coach or a student, you should be one, too.

Understanding the “why” is extremely important. It’s how we fix what’s going wrong with a lift or our progress. It’s how you can sift through all the fitness propaganda bullshit that pervades the internet and your social media. It’s how you can stop spending money at GNC on whale sperm extract that’s been collected and bro-ified to scorch body fat AND increase muscle size and power optimization. It’s what really separates a “Coach” from a “Trainer”.     

A Coach uses a model to provide feedback while a Trainer lacks a guide for analysis. A Coach is interested in and capable of developing and teaching you. A Trainer is interested in making you feel the burn and will cheer for you rather than providing constructive feedback for sustained progress. A Coach isn’t going to watch you squat a weight PR 1” high and lie to you by saying, “Great job!”

Your coach should understand the principle of Stress and Recovery to drive Adaptation rather than solely rely on what champions are doing. There are thousands of programs on the internets and many ways to go about getting stronger, but even if the program has proven its worth for some, it may not be right for you right now. Swipe left.

When you pay another person to help you with your training, you deserve a Coach. You deserve a person who is not going to let you get away with silly bullshit and will do more for you than be a shirtless, cheerleading DJ. A Coach doesn’t care much for your feelings, we’re mean that way. We care about making you stronger by doing things correctly and systematically by giving you properly timed cues and explanations, and keeping your long-term development in mind. 

While it’s our job to communicate with you, we also know when it’s time to step back and shut the hell up. There will be times during a lift when you just need to lift, you don’t need noise. And unless we’re specifically coaching your depth or timing, you don’t need to be told  to go “UP!” Like, no shit, that’s what you’re trying to do.

On the subject of over-involved coaching, I see “coaches” touching bars for all over Instagram and Facebook. When someone touches your weight, it’s no longer your weight because they’ve interfered with your bar path and taken weight off the bar. This person has stolen your rep; THESE REPS DON’T COUNT. Best to stop giving this person your money and your reps. 

So you go to a gym with a class format? You still deserve to be cued on how to move better, not just faster. Too many times, even in recent history, have I been lifting at a CrossFit gym and witnessed participants either plummeting to the bottom of a squat, not breaking depth or lifting in complete flexion and instead of the “coach” providing any valuable feedback on improving ANYTHING, the lifter receives time call-outs. There are surely great coaches in the CF community, go to those gyms and get your money’s worth.

Here’s a quick guide you can use the next time you’re working with the person you’re paying to train you for strength, see which category he or she fits into during these scenarios:

Coach Trainer
What you hear when you’re squatting: Depends on what, if anything, needs to be fixed. “DOWN DOWN DOWN!! UP!! UP!! UP!! UP!!”
What you hear when you’re deadlifting: Depends on what, if anything, needs to be fixed. “UP!!!” Or “UP!!!!”
What you hear when you’re benching: Depends on what, if anything, needs to be fixed. “UP!!!” Or “PRESS!!!”
What you’re told at the end of a session: “Remember to eat and sleep so you can go up in weight next time.” “Follow me on instagram.” “LIKE!!!!” “Excellent job!”

“Which training package would you like to purchase?”

When you ask, “Should I switch to sumo?”: “Let’s see if your hips are higher than your shoulders in a conventional set-up.” “Yes, because it’s more athletic.”
When you text and say, “I’m going to train for a marathon!”: “RIP gainzzzangry emoji.” high ten emoji Great! Time for you to lean out, anyway.


As a consumer, it’s difficult to know which gym or trainer is better than the other, especially when we cannot rely on the top certifying agencies to properly teach instruction of barbell movements. Nearly anyone who can pay the money for a weekend certification can open up a gym, remember, I was this person!

Find a coach that has experience training themselves and others, uses a model for instruction and analysis, and calls you out on silly bullshit even at the risk of not getting your money. Remember to be a skeptic and don’t fall for sensational appeal, it’s the push-up bra of the fitness coaching industry and the results you get from that kind of basic shit won’t last.


2 thoughts on “Are you paying for coaching or cheerleading?

  1. So damn validating. “A coach doesn’t care about your feelings we’re mean that way. A coach cares about making you stronger…”. This is the best thing I’ve read EVER! I’m so glad to have found SS and it’s community. Thanks for this authentic and inspiring post.


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